The idea that the foot’s main arch—the medial longitudinal (ML) arch—needs to be propped up and supported is a long-held belief in the foot care world and the footwear industry. In fact, propping up the ML arch with conventional arch orthotics is a common approach used by physicians to help treat certain foot and ankle disorders and “resolve” inherent foot flaws. Arch support is also a common design element included in conventional footwear for the same reasons. But I thought it would be helpful to examine the true nature of the ML arch and discuss what arch support truly means (and whether conventional arch support is really necessary—or even beneficial—for the human foot). In this article, I'll also discuss the importance of natural arch support and how to develop strong and sturdy arches by adhering to natural foot health principles.
Architectural Arch Principles
Understanding the architectural principles of an arch is extremely important in understanding what’s best for your foot's ML arch. A quick look at the dictionary reveals the following definition of an arch:
A curved structure that supports the weight of material over an open space.
In other words, an arch is any curved structure that is able to bear weight over an open space by providing support on either end of that open space, not by propping it up in the middle. In truth, an arch (any arch) becomes stronger when increasingly large forces are placed upon it, as the increased load causes the arch’s components to “mesh” more effectively. Engineers who design arch bridges understand this principle, and they would never design an arch bridge that was propped in the middle and had uneven support ends (like what you find in a lot of conventional shoes, which elevate the heel—and sometimes the toes—above the forefoot).
Foot Arch Architecture
If you take a closer look at the architecture of the bones that make up the ML arch, you quickly realize that most of these bones are themselves shaped like arches (even the individual toe bones, or phalanges). Nature is expecting all these bones to bear weight. Applying the dictionary definition of an arch to the ML arch, it can be reasoned that this structure is best supported by placing each end of the arch on a level plane and not by propping it up in the middle, as most conventional arch supports do (and as it’s widely believed is necessary).
Unfortunately, the type of foot arch support that’s most readily available to consumers and patients today (such as footbeds, built-in arch support in footwear, and conventional arch orthotics) is the exact opposite of the type of “arch support” most people actually require for healthy feet. All these products try to support or prop up the span of the ML arch and they do nothing to support the ends of this arch (i.e., the heel and the forefoot and toes).
Conventional Arch Support: A Band-Aid Solution
It’s true that some people who use conventional arch orthotics or other forms of arch support may experience a (usually temporary) improvement in their foot comfort while standing or walking, but this isn’t because they have a foot problem that’s solved or corrected by arch support. Instead, it’s because almost all footwear on the market today expects the wearer to function optimally while walking on a downhill ramp (an outcome of heel elevation—one of the most popular design elements included in conventional footwear). To put it another way, the “arch support” prescribed for and used by most people serves only as a Band-Aid solution (at best) that allows a person to continue wearing the type of footwear that led to or caused his or her foot problem in the first place.
Conventional footwear strips the ML arch of its inherent strength and stability by disrupting both support ends of the arch. It does this by elevating the heel, pinching the toes together, and positioning the toes above the ball of the foot. This triad of factors is extremely effective in destabilizing the ML arch. In fact, these common shoe design elements invert the normal foot arch, stripping the arch of all its power. And by propping up the open space of the foot arch, conventional arch support only serves to weaken the muscles and tendons that span this space or act upon it, which include the many layers of muscles in the foot and the muscles in the lower leg that send tendons to insertion points on the toes.
How to Enable Natural Arch Support
Natural arch support involves placing both ends of your ML arch on a completely flat surface from heel to toe, and it also involves restoring natural toe splay. Spreading out your toes the way nature intended is absolutely crucial in stabilizing the ML arch and preventing excessive pronation. Most of us who have worn conventional footwear for most of our lives have toe deformities that make it difficult to spread our toes. A helpful tool for enabling natural toe splay and natural arch support is Correct Toes (which you can wear on your bare feet or in combination with Injinji toe socks). This toe spacing device gently realigns your toes to their normal anatomical position, prevents numerous foot and toe problems, and restores power and function to your ML arch. Using footwear with a completely flat support platform in combination with Correct Toes is the best way to enable natural arch support and build strong and healthy feet.
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Natural Footgear features men's and women's shoes, boots, and sandals that are completely flat from heel to toe (also known as “zero drop” footwear), have flexible soles, and possess toe boxes that are sufficiently wide to accommodate natural toe splay and Correct Toes. Allowing your foot to function like a healthy barefoot inside your shoe is the best way to allow your foot, including all its various foot arches, to thrive. Regardless of whether your ML arch is low, medium, or high, it is inherently strong and capable of supporting your body’s weight. The simple act of walking and bearing weight with your foot in a healthy configuration provides all the stimuli your arch needs to become strong and resilient. In fact, the more weight your ML arch bears, the stronger it becomes! So, grab some foot-healthy footgear, get out there, and enjoy the foot health benefits associated with natural arch support.
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